An event that occurred outside Atlanta more than a century ago presaged the violent, racist God-and-country resurgence of white Christian nationalism that pervades America today, historian and author Jemar Tisby said during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly in Atlanta July 29.
Tisby, a professor at Simmons College of Kentucky, wrote The New York Times bestseller The Color of Compromise, and he is CEO of The Witness, an organization dedicated to Black uplift. Mark Wingfield, executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global, interviewed him during a breakfast sponsored by BNG.
Wingfield quoted a previous column of Tisby’s to say, “white Christian nationalism is what we used to call the KKK.” Then he asked: “How have we got to where we are today?”
Tisby cited “three different iterations of the KKK” as illustrations of how racism adapts to the times. The first occurred during Reconstruction, immediately after the Civil War, and the third happened a hundred years later, as a response to the Civil Rights Movement, he said.
But the second, which occurred during the Jim Crow era, is most reminiscent of what is recurring in America today, he said, citing a newspaper account of a Ku Klux Klan rally that happened atop Stone Mountain, less than 18 miles from the hotel ballroom where the breakfast crowd gathered.
Klan members burned a wooden cross atop the exposed-granite mountain, where they also placed a Bible, a U.S. flag and a sword, Tisby recounted.
“Just think about the symbolism,” he said:
- The cross represented white Protestant Christianity, now most clearly reflective of evangelicalism.
- The Bible reflected God’s authority, interpreted as supporting white Christian nationalists.
- The flag connected the fates of the nation and the Christian tradition.
- And the sword represented violence that is “celebrated and honored” by those who implement it to maintain power. If reenacted today, the sword would be replaced with an AR-15 assault rifle, he suggested.
Much like white Christian nationalists today, the KKK claimed its principles were rooted in the U.S. Constitution, whose code of conduct is recorded in the Bible, Tisby said.
Both movements seek to protect a particular identity — native-born, white, gentile, Protestant/evangelical — as it grasps for power in a changing climate, he noted.
Tisby decried “sanitizing” white Christian nationalism as a divinely anointed movement. “Your message sounds like the KKK,” he said.
Wingfield asked about the connection between the “biblical originalism” of Southern Baptists and other evangelicals and “constitutional originalism” of conservative politicians. Both doctrines insist their source documents’ meanings were set at the time of their writing and cannot be flexed to apply directly to modern situations.
Both are designed to present a “you can’t mess with that” aura of invincibility, Tisby responded. Just as biblical interpretation should be set in the context of its origins and in light of appropriate application for today, so should the Constitution. But conservatives, such as white Christian nationalists, treat the Constitution, which was written by men in the 1700s, “as if it were delivered like Moses coming down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments — and you can’t mess with that.”
Addressing recent incidents of police violence against Black citizens — such as the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, Breonna Taylor in Louisville in 2020, and a host of others across the nation — Tisby noted, “This gets to the idea of what is racism.”
“Some people think it’s about attitudes and relationships,” he said, noting they believe they cannot be racist if they have positive attitudes toward and friendships with some people of other races.
“The real issues” of racism have to do with institutions and the implementation of policy.
But “the real issues” of racism have to do with institutions and the implementation of policy, he said. To illustrate, he discussed the randomized and inherently dangerous activity of a traffic stop for a Black driver, particularly a male. He described how his stomach drops and he feels a deep sense of fear when a police officer pulls him over, “and it’s not because I might get a ticket.”
Many white people are blind to their own racism, Tisby noted. He recounted how, as one of only a handful of Black students at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss., he launched the African American Leadership Initiative. Its purpose was to recruit Black students to the seminary and “get involved in what I then would have called ‘racial reconciliation.’”
During a visit with a seminary trustee, the white man told him: “I don’t get what all the fuss is about. When I was growing up, we had Black help, and she was just like the family.”
Tisby, who earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Mississippi, said much of his work focuses on history because it provides important context for current events. For example, after a police officer murdered Michael Brown in the street in Missouri almost a decade ago, “I found historians had the most helpful things to say,” he noted.
Even though Tisby studied, wrote and lectured about racism for years, he learned more about racism after Donald Trump was elected president, he said.
“After the 2016 election, I stated that I did not feel safe worshiping at my predominantly white Christian evangelical church the following Sunday,” he reported. “The trolls piled on,” and he received hate mail for weeks.
“That’s when I realized this (white Christian nationalism) is an unholy alliance between fundamentalist Christianity and far-right politics.”
Wingfield, author of a new book about truth-telling, mentioned recent political trends have prompted Americans to “question what is true.”
“This is not new,” Tisby replied, comparing the Lost Cause narrative of post-Civil War South to conservatives’ reinterpretation of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The Lost Cause narrative is a decades-old attempt “to explain the South’s defeat and to ennoble the South’s cause,” he said. For example, it presents Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as a saint, claims the widespread existence of “happy slaves” and propelled the erection of Confederate monuments across the South.
“They rewrote the history of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction.”
“They rewrote the history of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction,” he said. “Now, they’re doing this with January 6, claiming the election was stolen, the president didn’t incite the insurrection and it was a just cause.”
Progressive Christians must rely upon “a better identity than whiteness” in order to push against racism, Tisby urged. “Research your own ethnic and national identity. When you came to America, you traded it for whiteness.” In so doing, people identified as white gained status and access to jobs, but they lost their true identity.
“Whiteness is not about melanin; it’s about ideology” that puts a person’s whiteness at the center of their narrative, where it does not belong, he said. “Recover your sense of identity that goes beyond merely being white.”
In addition to his conversation with Wingfield, Tisby took questions from the audience.
Asked if he leans into a Scripture touchstone as he fights racism, Tisby said he relies upon “every passage about truth,” as well as Jesus’ inaugural sermon recorded in Luke 4.
He also takes comfort from “God’s promise of God’s presence” recorded in Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
“As you confront racism and injustice … in the midst of it, God will be with you,” he said. “You will find Jesus before you, beside you and behind you every step of the way.”
Tisby agreed with a questioner who asked if the authoritarianism of American evangelical churches had “softened people up” so that many of them are willing to elect an authoritarian president.
“Folks in churches are conditioned to be accepting” of authoritarians who participate in the “unholy alliance” of ultra-conservative religion and right-wing politics, he said. “Folks don’t recognize white Christian nationalism. They think that’s ‘just Christianity.’ … So much of what folks are conditioned to believe is not about faith but about power.”
Tisby urged white progressives who want to fight racial injustice to step back from leadership and “support Black-led initiatives first.” That’s because whites “take up a lot of space” in the movement and cause others to defer to them.
“You have to be conscious about stepping back and letting others step forward,” he said. “People closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”